No traction

1 September 2018

It is common ground that Brexit is going badly. Remainers lament their country’s theft by the rascals who bamboozled an innocent electorate. Leavers deplore the betrayal of their hopes by a cabal of duplicitous BRINOS. The former continue to push for a new vote, the latter for parliamentary manoeuvres to frustrate the leader who let them down. Disappointment fires up resentment: the old lags - Clegg, Mandelson and Soubry; Banks, Farage and Rees-Mogg - are to devote the balance of the year to a rerun of the original campaign.

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Worse still: Government has pretty much lost traction with the nation it purports to serve - certainly on Brexit and possibly on much else. No doubt it goes back to the original sin of Blair’s dodgy dossier. But Osborne and Carney deserve a full measure of credit for their part in Project Fear. This turned out to be so far-fetched as to undermine anything HMG might have to say on the topic for years to come. This isn’t just DExEu or Fox’s half-baked Department for International Trade - readily dismissed as no-account newcomers, let alone the transparently political Cabinet Office; this is former fonts of authority, the Treasury and the Bank of England. The clumsiness of Chequers threw fuel on the fire of public disenchantment. Official credit is now so debauched that it's a piece of cake to rubbish “no deal” warnings, whether from Brussels or Westminster, both ahead of time and on delivery. Only journalists still have to pretend to take this guff seriously.

Popular disaffection is shown by the high proportion of respondents to the most recent YouGov poll (fieldwork 28 and 29 August), who returned a “don’t know” on specific policies, either above or within a couple of percentage points of the strongest party on the issue. This occurred on fully half the topics on which they were asked to comment: Brexit itself, plus education, immigration, tax and unemployment.

The public continues to see getting out of the EU as the UK's most important challenge (64% citing it vs 35% for the runner-up, healthcare). An overwhelming majority has cottoned on to the bish May is making of it, with 73% saying the Government is doing badly. As to who might do best, “don’t know” at 27% is well ahead of the Tories (23%) or Labour (14%). This means we needn’t take too seriously the long-awaited shift to remorse (47% vs 42% saying that with hindsight they think it was wrong to leave). As for the once key question, “Which of the following would make the best Prime Minister?”, respondents are decisive: “Not sure” at 39% wins handily over May at 35% and Corbyn at 23%.

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But you know what? None of this matters a fig. The stats tell of a surprisingly robust economy. It grew ahead of expectations at 0.4 percent (quarter on quarter) in the three months to June 2018. Employment has risen to a fresh record - 32.3m in work in the first quarter, up by some 200,000 over the previous quarter and nearly 400,000 over twelve months. The employment rate rose to 76%, the highest since 1971 when modern records began; household consumption also rose and fixed investment rebounded. Best of all, government borrowing is down to £13bn so far this year, compared with £21bn over the same period last year. July also saw the biggest monthly fiscal surplus in 18 years, with receipts outstripping expenditure by £2bn. Enough of the dry figures. If I look out of my window, cranes dot the skyline: the country is booming.

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Perhaps this should be taken to reinforce a longstanding suspicion. The nation does just fine despite sorry political leadership. Indeed, for two or three generations - I’d say since the dismal Seventies - the rewards of British political life have been insufficient to attract the most talented of my countrymen. Service as lobby-fodder has always conjured up a mixed bag, but not so long ago the Commons had several dozen figures of genuine accomplishment, on or within striking distance of the frontbenches. Fifty years of diminished global reach, salted with a diet of domestic tedium, has left the country with a leadership ill-prepared for the unexpected, let alone the challenge of an existential political question. Skills have gone overseas or otherwise away from public life. You’re not so sure? How else to explain the manifest failure of “cometh the hour, cometh the man”? How else to explain that palpable lack of traction? I don’t altogether like the answers either. Nor should any of us. But I’m afraid it means we need to brace ourselves for a trying autumn.